I had just been appointed as a part-time OU tutor (now known as an Associate Lecturer) to teach a new module, ‘Man’s Religious Quest’. My first tutorial was about to take place in Bolton in February 1978. The night before, I received a phone call from one of the students I would meet on the following evening. He could not easily get to Bolton so would I pick him up as I would be driving through Wigan? We were consequently locked together in a shared car journey during which time he grilled me, not about the arcane mysteries of the study of religions, but about whether the new module had been placed on the right level, whether its assignments were appropriate to this level, substitution regulations, and about OU life and its demands in general. The problem was that he seemed to speak fluently in a language made up almost entirely of acronyms, which he assumed I, as an OU tutor, would understand. It got little better once in the presence of my new class, all of whom seemed to have strong views about the demands of the new module, backed up, I am sure, with persuasive comparisons with other modules they had taken to date, all unfamiliar territory to me at that time. Before long, they were thoroughly immersed in what they agreed was one of the most fascinating modules they had taken. Simultaneously, I and my family became immersed in the OU and fluent in ‘OU-speak’ as that first tutorial was succeeded by many more over the following sixteen years as I taught a succession of Religious Studies modules.
What I saw of our students over the sixteen years of being a tutor more than convinced me of the worth of the OU and the value of its social mission. Apart from meeting some amazing and gifted people, in addition to taking regular tutorials, the OU gave me the opportunity to develop my skills in commenting on students’ work, supporting students with disabilities (then done through one-to-one tutorials in the student’s home) and students taking modules in prison whom I also visited. I came to realize what the potential reach of the OU could offer my own subject, Religious Studies, one that has not always attracted the attention it deserves in the school curriculum, despite the best efforts of many gifted RE teachers. Consequently, I seized the opportunity to become a full-time, OU regional academic in 1993, which took me into a new role, working with the team of Arts tutors in the region where I lived. Many, together with some of my full-time regional colleagues, became the colleagues with whom I worked most closely and over the longest period of my career. By then, the OU had won the battle to establish itself as a university in the eyes of government, other academics, employers, and the wider public. So many students wanted to register for the Arts level 1 module in the early years of the OU that many ended up in a queue for the following year. I always retained a respect for the generation of academics who had built the OU when the outcome of this new venture, and thus the effect on their careers, was far less certain. In the same year I joined the OU, Religious Studies was granted departmental status within the OU Faculty of Arts.
When I began to apply to universities for admission, like many others in the 1960s whose families had no previous experience of higher education, I knew very little about university courses and what they would involve. I simply wanted to pursue my interest in the study of religion, just like any other Humanities subject. Not knowing at that time how else to pursue the academic study of religion, I embarked on an undergraduate Theology degree in 1968. Once into my first term – yes, that quickly – it began to dawn on me how large the mismatch was between the curriculum of my chosen degree and my emerging interests. Had I but known, the first autonomous department of Religious Studies in the UK (one unconnected to an overarching department or faculty of Theology) was established at the University of Lancaster in 1967. This department, under the leadership of Professor Ninian Smart, exercised a considerable influence on the growth of interest in the study of religions in the 1970s through its involvement in projects to strengthen RE in schools and a prestigious BBC TV series on different religious traditions. My degree in Theology did enable me to take options in the history of religions, including the Hindu tradition. It thus helped me to discover that I wanted to study Hindu movements in India from the nineteenth century to the present-day, and I moved to Lancaster to continue postgraduate study there. Strongly influenced by my experience at Lancaster, I wanted to play a part in promoting the study of religions of the kind associated with Religious Studies. My professional life at the OU has been closely intertwined with the fortunes of Religious Studies.